England, Somerset, Radstock, Tuesday evening. I walk downstairs after settling my son, Alistair, in his bed for the night. I have resigned myself to my scheduled flight to Kenya being cancelled indefinitely by the intervention of the Icelandic volcano. The TV is showing the news. My attention is suddenly grabbed. Flights are back on — and mine appears to be one of them. With a start, I realise that I might just have put my son to bed for the last time until July.
Ah, the romance of air travel… where did it go? Come to think of it, did it ever exist? As usual, it’s a case of a few hours of fitful sleep, stopovers and sharing personal space with strangers, customs and immigration officials alike. Finally, touchdown in Nairobi. But luggage delays prevent me from joining Andrew at Alive & Kicking to meet Bernard, the maker of The Ball.
And so Joe Karanga, who meets me at the airport (and has patiently waited for me to emerge with my luggage) whisks me off to a project where Andrew and The Ball are rumoured to be waiting for me. And indeed they are. I haven’t seen Andrew since we parted ways in Casablanca. Then in the distance, there he is, camera in hand, and I break out into a spontaneous “ole ole ole”. Reunited for the final leg through East Africa to the World Cup.
But where is The Ball? Ah, there it is. Or is it? This one looks distinctly worse for wear and is, strangely, a weirdly misshapen.
Andrew explains that many thousands have signed it since I last saw it and that it has just been repaired, two new panels fitted which are smaller than the existing ones, giving it its, ahem, unique shape. Some keepie-uppie immediately reassures me that this is indeed no just any ball — it is The Ball.
I’m sitting in the internet cafe at the German Seaman’s Mission, our accommodation in steamy Douala. It is the last night for The Ball in Cameroon. As I frantically type an e-mail and organise the next leg of the mission, I hear someone utter the name Roger Milla. I swing around and see a southern European gentleman, unshaven, sporting what looks like a 1970’s porn star moustache, talking to two others. Our eyes meet. Do we know each other?
Back in Casablanca in February, Nicole Matuska had told Christian and me about a group of Portuguese journalists who were also on a trip to the World Cup. Phil and I heard more about them from a young Portuguese lady one boozy evening in Ouagadougou. A week later in Abidjan, at a visit to the famous football academy of ASEC Mimosas, they came up once again. It seems inevitable that our paths would cross.
“Are you from Portugal?” I ask. “Yes,” comes the response. “Are you going to the World Cup?”, “Yes” again. “Roger Milla is not in Yaounde,” I say. A knowing look — You must be from Spirit of Football.” It turns out that we know about them and they know about The Ball. And, what’s more, there are three French guys on another journey to the World Cup who are also in town. It’s going to be a World Cup trip dinner tonight.
The Portuguese journey started in Lisbon on the 9th of January. They have been on the road the longest. We kicked-off our journey on January 24th in London. And the French trip, which is sponsored by TV Channel Voyager (France’s answer to the Discovery Channel) began on the 6th of February in Paris.
The Portuguese are die-hard Benfica fans. I take great pleasure in taunting them about Liverpool (my team) having knocked Benfica out of the Europe League a few weeks ago. They talk about their emotional goodbye from friends and loved ones in Lisbon — it sounded dramatic. The final goodbye from hysteric, wailing mothers expecting never to see their children again — Africa would be the end of them, they thought.
The French duo’s farewell was not quite as emotional. They are an interesting pair. One of them is a football fan. The other hates football but loves Africa. Their story is one of anti-football and pro-football contrasted against an African backdrop. “Are you falling in love with football” I ask the non believer. “Not really” comes the reply, “but I can understand it more.” “Are you falling in love with Africa” I ask the other, “Yes,” the emphatic answer. The love of Africa and of travel and mostly of football is what brings us all together. Sharing common themes through very different experiences.
We talk about life on the road in Africa, the ups and downs, the near misses, the pressures of reporting the journey. We go our separate ways, but not before making optimistic plans to meet up again with the Portuguese in Zambia, the French in Namibia and the Portuguese again in Johannesburg on the eve of the Opening Ceremony.
All roads here lead to the World Cup.
Another day, another DHL cargo flight — this time a short hop lasting just 30 minutes from Benin to Lagos, Nigeria.
The Ball and Andrew arrive in Lagos. Nigeria is the 20th country en route to Johannesburg. What awaits them in Nigeria? Andrew is slighty worried as Nigeria has been in the news recently for the kidnapping of foreign nationals. The Ball is relaxed as ever.
Phil has gone, his flight left at 2am this morning. Now I am all alone, just me and The Ball. It is going to be hard trying to take care of everything now: filming, taking photos, writing, organizing… and trying to keep the German taxman off my back.
There is so much to do on such a journey that there is often little time for anything else. In fact, on the whole trip thus far, we have not had one big night out on the town. And you are talking about 3 lads that enjoy good old-fashioned knees up and are unlikely to ever turn down an opportunity. The Ball dictates this hard schedule but it is worth it.
Ouagadougou — Abidjan. What a ride, 1,180km of searing heat in 46 hours… and a seat for The Ball. This single track giant of a line, dating back to 1905, is carrying The Ball, Phil and me from the heart of Burkina Faso to the tropical Côte d’Ivoire.
We were told “don’t go to Côte d’Ivoire, it is far too dangerous”, “watch your back there, there are thieves everywhere.” “Don’t trust anyone”. “Watch the political situation. It is a volatile one. ” “It is getting ready to erupt there” said a French pilot we met in Mali, “the people want elections, they have been waiting for many years. The government cannot hold out much longer. It will go off there in the next month.” I am particularly worried about this leg of the journey.
There was a civil war here recently and our train is taking us through the heart of former rebel territory and its capital Bouake. I am also paranoid that our video camera might get confiscated. The train line is one of national security and monitored by the gendarmerie. But trying to prevent Phil from recording is a tough job for anyone at the best of times. He is also hoping to climb onto the roof of the train to film from above.
Many people warned me about travelling through Africa. Friends and family alike have grave concerns for our safety. They think we are mad. “Yes, there are problems in Africa. But there are problems everywhere,” said the Burkinabe Minister for Sport a few days ago. “If a bomb goes off in Marseille,” he continued, “France is still okay. If a bomb goes off in Nigeria, it is Africa and it is a big problem.”
Phil is much more relaxed about the whole situation. I worry when we can’t get a hold of Charles who is due to pick us up at the end of this gruelling ride… our mobile is not working. Phil chills. I’ve heard that bandits operate on the train which should arrive in 2 days time, if there aren’t any unforeseen technical problems. Phil continues to chill. I’m quietly looking forward to seeing the back of Cote d’Ivoire and I haven’t even set foot in it yet. The prospect of Ghana and visiting my friend Kweku is very appealing.
As the train rolls onwards, we start getting to know some of our Ivorian and Burkinabe neighbours. We drink beer with them, share food with them and joke with them. We have plenty of time to contemplate this roller coaster of a trip to the World Cup, endure some rigours of sub-Saharan long distance travel and open up The Ball’s Côte d’Ivoire adventure with a lightning-quick game on a station-side pitch.
As we cross into Côte d’Ivoire, almost a whole day into our journey, I have no more fears. I am excited to visit Abidjan and slightly embarrassed about my paranoia and very tired from this long, exhausting train ride. Onward.
The Ball has been given two blessings from two fetishmen in one morning and now we’re leaving Teli and the Dogon Country and are on our way to Bankass to catch a bus to Koro in the far east of Mali.
From there another bus takes us across the border into Burkina Faso. At the Burkina Faso border control point we play football with others on our bus.
Phil picks up the last set of tickets for one more bus to Ouagadougou. Although the journey is fascinating and the company delightful, we’re really looking forward to arriving at our destination for the chance to have a rest, we hope!
Mac drops us at the bus station and our names are the first on the list for the bush taxi to Bandiagara. Bush taxis and buses in Mali don’t have a set time schedule. They leave when they are full and full in Mali has a very different meaning than we might be used to. Full in Mali means packed like a tin of sardines.
We prepare ourselves for a long wait. It’s 8:45am and the sun is already getting hot. Phil takes advantage of some free time in the shade of the bus shelter to finish off securing The Ball’s net on to Andrew’s backpack.
Back in 2002, Christian and Phil carried The Ball in this net to the World Cup in Korea & Japan. It helps to keep The Ball safe and reduces the stress of those “Where is The Ball?” moments that happen nearly every day. Those moments of panic can be done without.
Two hours later and the minibus is full with 16 people, including three children, and we are ready to cram ourselves in. Our gear is strapped on the roof.
We take it upon ourselves to tell our fellow passengers about The Ball and one of them is so taken by it that he decides he must kiss it.
We arrive in Bandiagara and head to Hotel la Falaise to meet Mousa, our guide for the Dogon Country, and plan our solitary night in the region with him. Mousa is born and bred Dogon, and he suggests we spend our night in his village, Teli.
We waited a few hours for the next one out of town. Our luxury liner was an eighties-style station wagon crammed with 11 people inside, including Phil in between the middle row and the front row, and one person with loads of bags and a motorbike wrapped in foam on the roof.
Phil has been referring to Mali as the hottest place on earth since he saw it on a French weather channel a few days ago. And Kayes (pronounced “Kai”) is one of the hottest places in Mali, five degrees warmer than the capital Bamako, where it has been well over 40 degrees recently. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” we agree.
So now we’re on our way to Kayes in an old Spanish bus. The driver slept up on the roof under the stars last night. But now a mountain of bags, car tyres, boxes full of products, even a few chinese mopeds are somehow loaded up there. Inside is crammed full of people and their belongings. All interior lights are broken, the AC doesn’t work and the windows are just about falling out of their frames. The front windscreen doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
We are the last on the bus and are ushered to the last two remaining free places on the back seat. We squeeze in and are soon underway. The prospect of a 12 hour journey in this heat in this overcrowded, overheated bus isn’t exactly making us smile and it doesn’t take us long to realise that the engine is directly under our seats. Lovely. The excruciating heat is soon being amplified. Eggs (both proverbial and real) would fry quite easily under our feet.
To make matters worse, Andrew is feeling decidedly unwell. He’s had a nasty cough since his time in the extreme dampness that was Morocco and is hoping to see a doctor in Kayes to help him get rid of the infection. Travel, we agree, amplifies both the highs and the lows, in equal measure.